Equality drive

After a bipartisan Nevada Senate vote, a domestic partnerships bill faces a governor’s veto

Democratic Sen. John Lee of Clark County is the target of lobbying to get him to change his vote if it’s needed for a veto override on the issue of domestic partnerships.

Democratic Sen. John Lee of Clark County is the target of lobbying to get him to change his vote if it’s needed for a veto override on the issue of domestic partnerships.


As the final moment neared, the gallery was full of people with a direct stake in the outcome. In a quirk of timing, the vote in the Nevada Senate on domestic partnerships legislation came on the same day as an LGBT legislative day. More than 60 gay Nevadans from around the state traveled to the capital, an occasion dubbed Equality Day, styled after the Grass Roots Lobbying Day held for child and family issues each legislative session.

While the timing allowed the visitors to watch the domestic partnerships vote during a night session, that was about the best that could be said for the timing. The Equality Day event had been scheduled so late in the 2009 legislature that nearly every measure on which the LGBT community might lobby had already died, including an Assembly bill dealing with discrimination based on gender identity and a Senate bill on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Domestic partnerships was the surviving bill.

“We didn’t decide to do this day until late in the session,” said Denise Duarte, an organizer of the lobbying day. “Obviously if we had decided on it earlier, we would have chosen a date early in the session. We were just doing the best we could with the time we had.”

Besides, she said, the day was not really for lobbying this year but for visibility, to bring the presence of the Nevada LGBT community to the attention of legislators. In future years, there will be more of a lobbying purpose to the event.

Nevertheless, Assemblymember Sheila Leslie says she thinks the presence of all those Nevadans in the Senate gallery had an impact. “I think it was helpful in getting the bill passed,” she said. “Normally I’d say they were here too late to make a difference, but that vote was fortuitous.”

When the Senate vote on Senate Bill 283 came, it was a victory—12 votes for passage in the 21 member house. But the victory was undercut by the knowledge that Gov. Jim Gibbons was planning a veto and 14 senators were needed to override. And even if the governor’s veto is overcome, the law would likely face a court fight. In second-round voting on Ballot Question 2 in 2002, Nevadans enacted an initiative petition mandating that marriage can only be recognized in Nevada law as “between a male and female person …”

Does that mean that other arrangements such as civil unions and domestic partnerships are disallowed? Not surprisingly, each side wielded legal opinions supporting their own stance. That would be the subject of a court battle if a veto is overridden.

Before the final Senate vote on the bill, Washoe County Sen. William Raggio proposed an amendment that removed most language in the bill and replaced it with language allowing domestic relations contracts with which same gender couples designate each other to make inheritance, medical and funeral decisions.

It was uncertain what the Raggio amendment was intended to do, since such contracts already can, and are, used by both straight and gay couples. Raggio did not address that issue, but said, “However, it’s my belief that it will be vetoed. The governor has said so. I talked to Sen. [David] Parks, and I was trying to accommodate the primary concerns of domestic partners, whether they’re heterosexual or homosexual, that those were the areas that they were primarily interested in. So that was my purpose in the amendment. I think now that the bill will be vetoed.”

Parks is the sponsor and floor manager of the bill.

Ten of the 12 Democrats voted for the bill, and 7 of 9 Republicans opposed it.

The two Republican supporters were Washoe County Sen. Randolph Townsend and small counties Sen. Mike McGinness, whose vote was a surprise. The Fallon radio station owner is a conservative.

Sen. John Lee of Clark County, a Democrat, said he voted against the bill because he was concerned that some couples would engage in what he called “trial marriages” instead of real marriages. He has apparently not encountered the trial marriage ritual known as living together. Nor did he explain what would necessarily be so objectionable about such trial marriages that it would become the business of the government. In fact, the bill allows domestic partnerships for both same-gender and opposite-gender couples.

The measure is expected to have an easier time in the Assembly.

Earlier in the evening, there had been an LGBT reception at the same governor’s mansion from which Gov. Jim Gibbons evicted his estranged wife Dawn, reinforcing his standing as a champion of the sanctity of marriage. Though the event was held at his official residence, his veto threat assured that there were plenty of comments about the governor’s own uncivil union.

The reception was in the Nevada Room in a building separate from the mansion itself. Dawn Gibbons, who lives in an apartment over the Nevada Room, attended the reception where she spoke up for domestic partnerships, a gesture that was given more import than it deserved in subsequent news reports. According to RN&R sources, the first lady did not throw the reception in order to endorse the domestic partnerships bill. Although she supports the legislation, she was not the host of the mansion event. “There was no host,” said Duarte, who arranged the event through the mansion staff (many community groups use the mansion for such events), not through the first lady. Indeed, Dawn Gibbons did not know about the reception until shortly before it began when someone invited her to attend. Her comments about the bill were conversation more than a planned endorsement, but the notion of another Gibbons v. Gibbons dispute was irresistible to journalists.

One person attending the reception quoted the first lady as saying, “I have a lot of gay friends, and their relationships have lasted longer than many marriages”—a comment that drew laughs.

A search for prospective votes to override the expected veto by Gov. Gibbons focused first on Sen. Lee, the Democratic nominee for state controller in 2002 who is presumably still ambitious for higher office; Sen. Terry Care, a former Democratic state chair who is also believed to harbor plans for higher office; and Sen. Raggio, who is term limited.

“I think these guys need to get right on civil rights if they want any kind of enthusiasm from the party ranks for their candidacy later on,” said one veteran Democratic activist.

But the problem for supporters of the bill is that the politically safe default vote is for the status quo.

Events in Nevada are being watched in some LGBT quarters around the nation.

“What happens in Nevada can definitely chip other states in moving forward more quickly,” Human Rights Campaign national field director Marty Rouse told the Boston Edge. “In addition to Nevada being an important state, it has national importance because the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is from Nevada. If S.B. 283 passes in Nevada, it can only influence Sen. Reid as he considers federal legislation, as well.”